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Why richer states have larger homeless populations

Homelessness is not about poverty.

Elizabeth Daniels for Curbed

When we think about what causes homelessness, we probably think of individuals experiencing endemic poverty that eventually forces them onto the streets. But as a new Boston Globe report reveals, there is no correlation between the number of impoverished residents and homeless residents in the U.S. In fact, the richer the state, the higher the homelessness rate.

The surprising analysis by Evan Horowitz shows a strong nationwide trend: Homelessness is most prevalent in cities with the highest per capita incomes:

The District of Columbia is the tragic leader on this score, with a rate of homelessness six times the national average and the highest per capita incomes in the nation. Close behind are other relatively wealthy redoubts: Hawaii, New York, Oregon, and Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, the states with the smallest homeless populations are Mississippi and Alabama, two of the poorest places in the country.

How could that be possible? The not-so-obvious reason for this is that the richer states have higher housing costs.

To see how these statistics play out in the real world, just look at the data from the 2008 recession. Homelessness in Americans dropped during the downturn. Why? Because the cost of housing plummeted, making it more accessible to people who might not have been able to rent or buy a home before. And as the economy grew, so did housing costs, exacerbating the problem into the crisis we’re facing today.

This report goes against the questionable, but still oft-cited wisdom that somehow expensive cities are “good” because it’s good for the overall economy. In The New Yorker, Mark Gimein explains why the high cost of living in a city is bad for all residents, but mostly for those who have the least. “The more expensive they are, the more closed they become to everyone but those who already have money—pushing them to become more expensive still.” People on the brink of homelessness, who are more susceptible to a catastrophic and financially devastating life event, don’t stand a chance.

That’s why the best way to solve this problem, Horowitz writes at the Globe, is not necessarily to grow the economy in an attempt to boost people out of poverty, but to simply provide cheaper, more plentiful housing.

As Horowitz points out, Massachusetts has been a leader in this area. Although it fits the trends as a rich state with a high homeless population, Massachusetts also practices “right to shelter,” meaning that most of its homeless residents are living in some form of housing, not living on the street. That meant adding enough housing stock to help bring costs down for those who may be able to afford it, and providing government-funded permanent housing for the people who need it most, which, Horowitz says, is really only a few thousand people.

The good news, if there is any, is that richer states that need to house the most people also have the most resources available to copy Massachusetts’ plan.

Source: Boston Globe